Friday 6 July 2018
I visited Cornwall to find out more about the cabinetmaking courses at the Cornwall College in Camborne. I imagine students are attracted by the beach lifestyle as well as the fine new building and state-of-the-art machinery!
As well as offering considerable help in producing this article, Phil Whitfield, HND Programme Manager, took me on a tour of the workshops. The college has about 40 furniture-making students at any one time with courses offered at each level. When I found the main workshop, a City & Guilds Basic Woodworking Skills course was in progress.
This course includes Hand-Crafted Furniture, Level 1. The two courses are delivered consecutively in order to provide the student with a much more intense programme. There is a course handbook for each student with pages devoted to basic techniques, common joints and test projects. Students work on a wide range of projects – some of which are standard test pieces such as the bedside cabinet, and some of which they can design themselves.
There is always a tutor present, both to ensure safety and good workmanship as well as guidance.
The sessional tutors who teach both theory and practical activities work part-time at the college; the remainder of the week they are practising craftsmen with their own outside interests.
Each student makes a small toolbox in the early part of their course. The college provides all of the tools that a student requires, but many students choose to bring or to gradually build up their own tool kit. Advice from the working tutors is freely given – we all like talking about tools don't we?
Although students have an individual bench in their own group, when another group uses the workshop another student will occupy the bench, so it is necessary to pack everything away when the practical session has finished. This discipline of keeping benches and tool-storage areas tidy is really a good thing – however, everyone likes to spread themselves and their projects out all over the bench!
Some classes are quite large with 20 students to a group and others rather small with perhaps only seven – it just depends upon intake each year. Groups work with no more than 12 students per tutor and there is usually a technician on hand as well.
This year there are three female students and a number of mature students on each course. The tutors find that mature students tend to have a higher level of motivation throughout the group – perhaps those who have already had some work experience are more aware of the need to make the most of their learning opportunities.
The college boasts two very up-to-date machine rooms, and while all students receive machine training, they are discouraged from relying on them. Phil says “We like to emphasise hand-skills; later the students can relate this knowledge to machine work”.
The smaller room has a similar floor area to a small house and equipped with all of the standard machines including a large veneer press. The larger room is really set up for the industrial wood-machining courses and houses the electronically controlled and multi-head machines.
The 'flagship' course is the HND Design and Make Course, Level 3. This is offered as a two-year full-time or three-year part-time course.
One of the first projects for the students is a stool with exposed dovetails and simple opposed cross-bracing, and last year a group consisting of staff and students exhibited at the furniture show in Milan.
Two mature students have made a table and chairs for the college reception area. Just by looking at the interesting rise-and-fall mechanism it is obvious these makers are not afraid of tackling difficult problems. The college has also made furniture for the Falmouth Art Gallery and the St. Ives Tate among others.
The Royal Cornwall Museum commissioned a set of 12 chairs and was designed and constructed by HND student, Alan Brand.
The college makes a small charge for timbers used, however, fixings, adhesives, papers and polishes are all provided at no extra cost. HND tuition fees are about Â£1,200 per annum for full-time courses. Further Education (FE) students who have enrolled before the age of 19 do not pay fees.
The Student Services Department helps to find accommodation and there is an International Department that looks after overseas students.
While looking around the college I noticed a greenwood chair. It was made on a short four-day course with a total of 24 hours practical teaching time.
There is also another supplementary two-day French polishing course which is delivered by a local practising polisher. Once again the emphasis is on using current practitioners for the practical teaching.
Phil says: “We regard these courses as valuable in giving the student the benefit of working with a practitioner rather than a tutor. While most of the staff have these skills they are only in the context of an educational environment not current or 'real' practice.
“A visiting practitioner can provide the student an experience that we, as tutors, cannot. That's not to undervalue the skills or expertise of the tutor but a practitioner can offer a very different experience. We would like to offer more short courses of this kind but, of course, there are always financial restrictions”.
The college places their emphasis on practical teaching and the FE students spend three out of four days in the workshops learning both hand and machine skills. This amounts to 18 hours per week – over two years this equates to around 1,500 hours. The remainder of the time is taken up with theory/design work and Key Skills which the college has to deliver – numeracy, literacy and IT.
“For HND students, the bench time is harder to quantify as the teaching model is very different.
“The beginning part of the semester tends to concentrate on the theory and research strategies that will support the development, the latter half of the semester may involve a student spending 100% of their time in the workshop,” says Phil.
All students are encouraged to work to exhibition standards. An exhibition of work is held every year at an external gallery and the college has taken shows all over Cornwall.
This year the exhibition took place during the first two weeks of July at Heligan Gardens.
The college philosophy is based very much on the craft ideal. It is anticipated that graduates will be able to fit easily into any skilled woodworking area ranging from yacht fitting to furniture-making.
In a future issue I will profile Tom Rosenfeld, a HND graduate who now works as Furniture Maker in Residence at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.